Increasing Female Voices in Mine-action Planning and Prioritization

by Catherine Cecil and Kristen Rasmussen [ International Women’s Development Agency, Inc. ]

The Community Strengthening and Gender Mainstreaming in Integrated Mine Action Project focuses on one of the greatest challenges women face in mine affected areas of Cambodia: to be actively and meaningfully involved in the decision-making process in mine action. Three international organizations have collaborated to develop a complex plan addressing the issues and impediments facing the residents of many Cambodian villages. Its implementation demonstrates the sweeping changes necessary for participation by all villagers and the promise of truly integrated mine-action strategies.

A  woman explaining the location of minefields around her village as shown on a  map prepared by the community.
A woman explaining the location of minefields around her village as shown on a map prepared by the community.
All photos courtesy of Kristen Rasmussen

As a result of nearly three decades of war and civil conflict, Cambodia is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. An estimated 63,000 Cambodians have suffered landmine/unexploded ordnance casualties between 1979 and 2007.1 Cambodia has made great strides in clearing landmines and UXO, but challenges remain, as shown by the 347 casualties in 2007.2

Due to different roles in their daily lives, Cambodian men and women face different risks from landmines and UXO. Men consistently face greater risks of accidents than women in fields and forests, while women face more risks closer to villages or water sources. Both men and women can offer valuable information on landmine/UXO risks in the clearance planning and prioritization process, but women face barriers to participating actively in this process.

Traditional gender roles often bar women from public life and thus from playing a decision-making role in development and planning. As explained by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: “Deep-rooted cultural and social patterns, norms and attitudes and stereotyped roles limit women’s access to political and public life. Poverty falls particularly heavily on women, especially on female heads of households. Cambodian women do not have enough time to focus on political affairs in the face of heavy economic and family burdens. Lack of adequate education, family support and control over resources are also hindering factors to participation in public life. Despite available training programs, women generally are concerned about their own security and are not confident in their management and decision-making capabilities.”3

The project’s goals are in line with the government of Cambodia’s policy guidelines on demining, which state that “the ultimate objective of demining is to reduce poverty.”4 The project works to ensure that a full range of voices are included in clearance planning and prioritization supports the guidelines’ requirement for “fair and transparent prioritization.”4

The project has provided training on gender awareness and effective facilitation to the Mine Action Planning Unit staff.5 This training prepares them to encourage both men’s and women’s active participation in the planning and prioritization process, in coordination with other capacity-building efforts conducted by Australian Volunteers International.6 Attendance at most mine-action planning meetings is limited, which in turn reduces the impact of inclusive facilitation techniques. Most attendees, for example, at commune-level7 planning meetings were predominately male village chiefs. Although invitation lists allowed for more participants, these meetings required travel, which is expensive and is historically considered inappropriate for women in Cambodian society. Later meetings were similarly dominated by other officials, who were most often male; therefore, the organizers decided to undertake a pilot project to enable men and women to fully participate at the local level.

The guidelines require village and commune authorities to “ensure fair and transparent prioritization and selection of demining tasks” of greatest benefit to poor families and “demining tasks that contribute to the community development plans with active participation of villagers and village mine action volunteers.”7 Local officials are charged with preparing “demining requests and land-use plans with a clear list of intended beneficiaries” in order to present them at the commune-level meetings. Following these meetings, MAPU staff conduct investigations of suggested sites, and clearance priorities are further developed and refined at higher levels of government (district and provincial levels).

Local planning efforts vary. In most places, local consultations occur without any participation or documentation by MAPU. One clearance operator has organized local volunteer networks to hold planning and prioritization meetings at the village level, but these networks are not active in every village. In many villages, it is not clear what village chiefs do to gather information on local landmine/UXO threats.

Pilot Project to Boost Participation in Planning and Prioritization

With support from the United Nations Development Programme and Australian Volunteers International, the Community Strengthening Project outlined a three-part plan to organize village meetings with broad participation. The project targeted four villages4 in the Rottanak Mondul district of Battambang province with high levels of contamination. The first step was to enlist input from both MAPU and project staff to design a pilot project focused on increasing participation. The project used this input to design training sessions for local volunteer facilitators. These volunteers were members of existing gender networks, village-development committees and livelihood groups in project villages. Finally, the volunteers held village meetings to gather information from both men and women on local landmine/UXO threats and presented their findings to village chiefs to prepare them for meetings at the commune level.

Villagers  preparing a map of their village showing areas around their village that are  contaminated by landmines.
Villagers preparing a map of their village showing areas around their village that are contaminated by landmines.
A  meeting facilitator leading an exercise where villagers create finalized map  which the village chief will take to the commune-level minefield clearance  prioritization meeting.
A meeting facilitator leading an exerciseshows a finalized map which the village chief will take to the commune-level minefield clearance prioritization meeting.

Groups of two to five volunteer facilitators in all four villages successfully organized meetings with 40 to 65 participants, with active female participation and leadership. Female participation ranged from 40 to 80 percent, and in Chisang village more than half the 60 participants were women. Meetings focused on mapping mined areas near the village, an activity that was unfamiliar and sometimes intimidating to most villagers who attended.

Through small-group mapping exercises and large-group discussions, participants came to agreement on areas that contain landmine/UXO threats. They also prioritized these sites for clearance. During the small-group exercises, an IWDA facilitator encouraged members to take turns holding markers that were used to draw the maps and ensured that group members had equal opportunity to participate in the exercise. These small groups gave more people confidence to participate. In O Daikla village, a few women were quite outspoken as they took the lead in drawing maps. In Chisang village, women participated actively in two of the five groups.

Participants were asked to name the beneficiaries of cleared land. In O Daikla, some villagers said that poor people and widows should be given priority consideration, but most villagers in all the meetings appeared uncertain about this process and asked for more time to complete this exercise after the meeting. The volunteer facilitators also were asked to provide the information generated from their meetings to their village chiefs to help them prepare for commune-level meetings.

The village level meetings described above were followed by clearance planning meetings organized by the MAPUs and held at the commune level. At these commune planning meetings, opportunities for broad inclusion were limited by the small number and roles of participants. For example, at the Sdau commune meeting, the commune chief urged attendees to participate equally in the day’s meeting, yet attendees were limited to 15 people, including three women. Attendees included village chiefs, village development committee members, and clearance operators.

Three of the four village chiefs in the pilot projects said they benefited from input provided by villagers at the earlier village meetings. Village chiefs from the target villages in Sdau commune brought documentation with them to the commune meeting; however, most village leaders used MAPU prioritization forms from the previous year to help them determine which minefields to list in clearance requests. In contrast, village chiefs who were not part of the pilot project said they had not held community meetings to identify or prioritize minefields for clearance prior to the commune meeting.8

The annual planning and prioritization process is ongoing, so it is unclear what impact the local meetings have had on final clearance priorities. Volunteer facilitators in Badak Tboung and Neang Lem villages have reported that they got positive feedback from villagers at the local meeting. “People felt happy and said that they had more confidence in themselves. They said that they were glad to draw a map on their own and gain some knowledge,” said Boot Bunnee, a female volunteer in Badak Tboung village.9

Peng Pou, another volunteer facilitator in the same village, said she was more optimistic about the role that she can play in mine action or development in the future. “When we had done prioritization in the past, we were just told about clearance plans by authorities and then the operator came to clear,” she said. “It will be better if we can work together.”10 Khaet Yung, from Neang Lem village, said that as a result of the training he and other volunteers learned “they had the right to organize meetings and provide information about where mines are.”11

The volunteer facilitators said they would organize a similar meeting in the future. “We want villagers to have awareness of mines,” Peng Pou said.


The pilot project shed light on many challenges affecting both men’s and women’s participation in the planning and prioritization process.

Given their pivotal role at the start of the planning and prioritization process, village chiefs need support and information to help them participate effectively. Village chiefs have many responsibilities in their communities and limited time, and like others in poor communities, they need to earn income. At commune-level meetings, many village chiefs appeared to be challenged by the process of completing the required forms, and most relied on forms they used in the previous year.

Villagers need support in building their confidence and skills. Not all villagers participated equally in local meetings. Younger women generally participated more actively than older women, and older men tended to participate more actively than younger men. Higher participation may be due to higher education levels among younger women compared to older women, or higher economic status among older men. Although there are many exceptions in Cambodia, villagers with higher incomes are frequently considered appropriate community leaders because they are generally better educated.

Villagers need support to build their capacity in mapmaking. This activity was new for many villagers who participated in the minefield identification meetings. The International Women’s Development Agency has observed many times that it seems awkward for women to participate in such meetings or even to hold a pen, which may be due to higher levels of illiteracy among women. In the pilot project, this limited experience affected the quality of maps. The absence of specific information like distance markers raised concerns that the maps would be discredited at the commune planning meeting.

Volunteer facilitators need support to build their capacity and confidence. Some were daunted by filling out forms and wanted more time to complete them. Not all the volunteers succeeded in handing off forms to their village chiefs. Chisang village had only two volunteer facilitators, and facilitation was more difficult for them than for peers. One of the volunteers was an amputee, the other a widow. They may have been marginalized within their communities, which in turn affected their confidence.12

Lessons Learned

The village chiefs were better prepared and more confident at commune planning meetings as a result of local input, maps and documentation on contaminated sites and beneficiaries of cleared land provided through the pilot project. Village chiefs would benefit from increased training in completing MAPU minefield-prioritization forms.

Both men and women participate more fully with active facilitation and encouragement. A strong training focus on encouraging women to speak helped volunteer facilitators to target their efforts. Participation also increased in small-group discussions.

Local participants succeeded in bolstering their skills with opportunities to practice making maps. One effective technique is to hand participants a pen to encourage them to draw on the map. Although several people were nervous about this activity, they were very pleased after they made their maps, and they reported that the meetings made them more willing and confident to participate in similar activities in the future.

Groups with more facilitators were better able to manage their meetings. Some facilitators reported that it might have been easier for them to have a series of smaller meetings in their villages rather than one large meeting as smaller meetings would be easier to manage.


Nongovernmental organizations or other external partners can support the clearance planning and prioritization process by ensuring that all voices are heard in local meetings and by linking participants to decision-makers. Local meetings help fill the gap shown by village chiefs who report little or no local consultation before they begin the planning and prioritization process. Providing a forum for broad participation is not enough. Participants at all levels—from villagers to volunteer facilitators to village chiefs—showed anxiety about their skills and their need for more information and capacity. JMA icon


Cicel HeadshotCatherine Cecil is the Gender Advisor for the International Women’s Development Agency, Inc.’s Community Strengthening and Gender Mainstreaming in Integrated Mine Action project. Cecil is an attorney with a background in public policy. She has worked for several nongovernmental organizations in Cambodia since 2004.

Rasmussen HeadshotKristen Rasmussen is the Project Coordinator for the International Women’s Development Agency, Inc.’s Community Strengthening and Gender Mainstreaming in Integrated Mine Action project. Rasmussen has worked in the field of mine action since 2005, focusing specifically on gender issues in integrated mine action for most of that time.


  1. “Cambodia Mine /UXO Victim Information System,” Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System Annual Report 2006: 11. Accessed 22 October 2008.
  2. “Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System,” Cambodia Mine/UXO Victim Information System Monthly Report (December, 2007): 5.
  3. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, “Combined Initial, Second and Third Periodic Reports of State Parties, Cambodia” (United Nations): 40. Accessed 13 October 2008.
  4. “Policy Guidelines and Operational Guidelines on Socio-Economic Management of Mine Clearance Operations,” Cambodia Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority, (2006)
  5. The Mine Action Planning Units were established by the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority in order to systematize and increase the transparency of landmine clearance and post-clearance land distribution and utilization.
  6. The Australian Volunteers International recently concluded a three-year program, the objective of which was to strengthen the capacity of Cambodian Mine Action Planning Units to improve coordination of mine/UXO clearance.
  7. One exception is in Oddar Meanchey province, where the vast majority of MAPU-led planning and prioritization meetings begin at the village level. About 30 to 40 people attend each meeting, with strong representation from men and women. Expanding this practice to other provinces would likely require greater resources.
  8. The pilot project targeted the villages of Badak Tboung, O Daikla and Neang Lem in Sdau commune and Chisang village in Traeng commune.
  9. However, it is possible that these village chiefs consulted with people informally before they attended the commune-level meeting.
  10. Interview with Boot Bunnee and Peng Pou in Badak Tboung village, 20 June 2008.
  11. Interview with Khaet Yung in Neang Lem village,12 June 2008.
  12. This is speculation based on the authors' combined 28 years experience with Buddhist culture and knowledge of Buddhist beliefs that people who are afflicted with diseases, disabilities or misfortune are often believed to have somehow “caused” their misfortune due to bad behavior in a past lifetime.

Contact Information

Catherine Cecil
Gender Advisor
The International Women’s Development Agency, Inc
Tel: +855 12 879 542

Kristen Rasmussen
Project Coordinator
The International Women’s Development Agency, Inc
Tel: +855 12 909 978